A Skeleton Key to Histoire(s) du cinéma

I think the best way to look at these programs is to enter into the image without a single name or reference in your head. The less you know, the better.
– Jean-Luc Godard (1)

1. What History?

Images and sounds, frequently overlaid multiple times and set at odds with each other, flash up and flee from us. Some of them are original images shot on video – of the filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard in his office-studio, typing and reading, or of some well-known French actors reciting texts – but most of the material is taken, grabbed from elsewhere. Images from old films; still photographs of artists, writers and actors; classic paintings; and snatches of music, both classical and popular. Is it some kind of history textbook, a guide to the art of film in its social context? Yes and no. Because what we get is a very particular view of history, filtered through a restless, complex, very individual sensibility. And the maker’s own works are inserted into this history as yet another piece of the grand puzzle.

Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998) is unlike virtually any other major work in film. It is not fiction, it is not documentary, it is not simply a collage of bits and pieces. It is much closer to an essay – an audiovisual essay, written in sounds and images. But as an essay it does not track through a clear structure of premise, argument, elaboration and conclusion. Much of it is cryptic – or rather, poetic.

It proceeds through a type of free association, from one fragment to the next. Many of the subtle links between the thousands of small pieces in this giant montage go deliberately unstated and unexplained by Godard. As a viewer, you can get into the work by trying to identify and interpret what is happening from second to second in the Histoire(s). Hundreds of critics, fans and scholars of Godard all over the world have already written many books’ worth, following up and explicating its links and allusions.

But it must also be said at the outset – as Godard himself has repeatedly stated – that, on another level, you do not have to be any kind of scholar or historian to watch and loveHistoires(s) du cinéma. Godard wants you to feel the work, to intuit what you can, to let it wash over you. This is another aspect of its nature as one vast poem, rather than a strictly intellectual thesis. Like in every Godard film or video from any period since his feature debut, À bout de souffle (1960), there are powerful emotions underlying even the most cerebral flight of fancy here: emotions of melancholia, rage and wonder. Whatever else the Histoire(s) can be said to be, it is above all lyrical – a kind of lyric ode. This is Godard’s own, personal feeling, but it is also a collective and cultural phenomenon – a story, precisely, of the Twentieth Century, in all its splendour and all its misery.

Histoire(s) du cinéma, whatever else it is, is a profoundly untimely work, in the spirit in which this Screening the Past dossier anoints such untimely cinema. The great German film critic Frieda Grafe (1934-2002) spent her lifetime proposing that films are less fixed objects in a cultural time and place (although they are certainly, inescapably that) than transition points, passageways or corridors that mediate between different historical periods. They are in dialogue with a difficult, complex, multi-layered past while pointing ahead to a no less complicated future. Godard’s monumental work inhabits all these positions, and times, at once. At one level, it is an ode to a cinema, a classic cinema, which is perpetually slipping away – and which is already, to a large extent, lost. Through all of its elaborate techniques and strategies, it evokes a ‘myth of cinema’ as something that has died, but can always be resurrected. On another level, it is fully turned toward the future: the Histoire(s) was prophetically and presciently made, in a sense, for our digital, twenty-first century age of viewing – because we have the freedom to watch it in small doses, and go back over it repeatedly.

Splendour and misery: this pair of words appears in the visible titles, printed on screen, of Histoire(s) du cinéma. They point to the fundamental ambivalence, the contradiction or paradox, which rises up and tears apart every moment of this series. Cinema is grand, but it is also horrible. It is visionary, even heavenly, but it is also dirty, thoroughly tainted by the industry of capitalism, by the branding and selling of flesh, by the pedalling of lies.

The Histoire(s) du cinéma is the story of a Fall in the Biblical sense, a fall from the innocence of a Garden of Eden. Godard has often been attracted to such spiritual metaphors, whatever his own personal (and no doubt changing) religious beliefs over the years. Cinema was once, for a precious moment or two, innocent, pure, piercing in its clear vision of the world. Then it was tempted by money, and lost its way. It gets dragged, and it drags itself, in the gutter. But it never entirely loses the memory of what it once was, or the hope of what it might be again in the future. At every moment, the cinema rises and falls, lives and dies, dwells in both the high and the low. This is what Godard’s elaborate editing and mixing patterns express, in infinitely fine variations, across the 266 minutes of the entire work. Hence the constant juxtapositions in the Histoire(s) of beauty and corruption, sublimity and vulgarity, art and pornography (whether erotic or violent).

The very title of the piece is the first sign of this. Godard loves to play with words: words as they are spoken and written, heard and read, in all their slippages and multiplicities of meaning. He interrupts words, breaks them up into smaller, hidden words, combines them, shifts them around. First, the title, with its ‘s’ in brackets, is both singular and plural: it signals a sole ‘history of cinema’, as we conventionally think of film history, but also many new or possible ‘histories of cinema’, including those Godard himself will suggest to us. Then, the word histoire is itself dual-purpose: it signifies both history and story (or fiction) – because history, for Godard, is simultaneously something concretely real, which objectively exists in the world, and also something constantly made up, told, constructed, often for quite sinister purposes. Finally, the word histoire also has colloquial, usually sarcastic meanings in French: it is a way of describing something as either a big lie, or a hassle. Indeed, the very word cinéma sometimes has this connotation in everyday French, a way to point up something as fake, contrived or artificial.(2)

Yet Godard still believes, for all the lies and make-believe, in a history of cinema. And it is a history he felt, at a particular point of his life, uniquely suited and compelled to tell.

2. Conditions of Memory

Histoire(s) du cinéma has a special place in Godard’s career, quite simply because it is effectively the only major work that he has nurtured, worked over and revised over a period of some twenty years. Godard, especially in his younger years, has often come across as an artist of impulse, spontaneity and casualness; more like a jazz improviser or action painter, swiftly beginning a new project before the last is barely cold. But not this time.

The Histoire(s), which is divided into four main parts and eight separate sections, was originally made for and financed by French television, Canal Plus. It was premiered, piece by piece, between 1988 and 1998; at the end, Godard went back and re-edited parts of it. Also involved was the large cinema chain Gaumont, which won Godard a rare and privileged copyright clearance – very few audiovisual artists could get away with the wholesale larceny of samples (or quotations) that comprise this work.

Once completed, Histoire(s) du cinéma was disseminated in many, diverse formats: on VHS and DVD, in several book forms (one for disembodied images, another for disembodied text), with the entire soundtrack released on CD by another company with which Godard enjoys a close affiliation, ECM Records. The project has also led to various spin-off short films, a closely related art exhibition at the Pompidou in Paris, and a condensed 35 millimetre film version titled Chosen Moments (2004). Godard has also shown himself unusually willing to talk about and explain this work, in numerous interviews in all media – and some of these marathon talkfests have also appeared subsequently as books.

At one level, the Histoire(s) is a continuation of several remarkable series projects that Godard made for French television during the 1970s. Like those projects, it is uncompromising, a kind of barrage against standard TV formats. The various parts of the project have no consistent length, and do not allow for easy insertion of commercial breaks. It is also fiercely low-tech. There is nothing slick or glossy about Histoire(s) du cinéma. Although its multi-layered images are remarkable in their colouration and design, Godard sticks to the simplest video tools at his disposal, such as wipes, a ‘blinking’ effect with black frames, and the rapid alternation between two images that he is viewing on two different monitors in his editing suite. Moreover, his source material is far from perfect: Godard is using degraded VHS copies, picked up hither and thither, of virtually every film he cites. Often the screen size is wrong, the print is bad, the available version has been damagingly tampered with by producers or distributors. But Godard accepts all of this as a condition of his untimely project. This is a vision of the cinema that largely comes mediated through the suburban video shops of the 1980s.

The adventure of the Histoire(s) began in 1979. Godard was asked to give a series of talks in Canada later transcribed and collected under the banner of an Introduction to a True History of Cinema – ‘true’, because it was told or constituted in the very ‘evidence’ of images and sounds, rather than just words. Godard curated clips from films and spoke, off the cuff, about the associations between these films and the history of his own work. At that point, Godard had begun to intuit that an “invisible”, hitherto untold history of cinema was embedded in what he called the very “geology and geography” of the films themselves (3); also that “a solidarity exists between the history of cinema and history itself”: he said “the latter (history itself) is required in order to tell the former (the history of cinema)”. (4) A third dimension of the project, in this inaugural phase, was clearly personal, and even autobiographical: to review his own work and life, and somehow make sense of them within this broader picture of history and cinema.

Until the mid ‘80s, Godard had never much used direct quotations from other films in his own work, except in special circumstances. He began to do so in the small-scale video works he made in collaboration with Anne-Marie Miéville, such as Soft and Hard (1986). During the long production of Histoire(s) du cinéma, the use of quotations began to filter into other hybrid projects by Godard that were poised between fiction, documentary and essay, such as the little-seen but extraordinary Germany 90 Nine Zero (1991). Since the completion of the Histoire(s), Godard has used an extensive collage of such quotations in all his feature films made for cinema, like Nôtre Musique (2005) and Film Socialism (2010).

It is important to add that, when it comes to the cultural works he cites pell-mell, Godard is not necessarily much more knowledgeable than we, his viewers. He cheerfully claims to have forgotten much more than he has retained – and indeed, he himself needed help, after the fact, to identify many of the clips in the Histoire(s). Indeed, a big part of the experience of history, in Godard’s view, is the oblivion of history, our forgetting or half-forgetting of it, which can be criminally amnesiac, but also wonderfully creative. Histoire(s) du cinéma takes us right into this swirl of memories – some vague and dim, others razor sharp.

Besides, Godard has always been a magpie, a man of fragments, not of whole works perfectly mastered: books for example – these are, for him, titles, covers, disembodied phrases or buzzwords, spines on a shelf (as his obsessive book browsing throughout the series makes clear). Films, too, are sometimes important purely for their iconic, emblematic, richly suggestive titles: Broken Blossoms (1919), Cries and Whispers (1973), Rules of the Game (1939) …

As a historian of the real world, Godard is equally open to suspicion. He has been much criticised on this score: under what he considers the keywords of History – like resistanceoccupationexile, and so on – Godard has a tendency to conflate wildly divergent phenomena. He gave a disarming early indication of this during an interview with Peter Wollen – immortalised on film in Jon Jost’s Godard 80 (1980) – when he blithely equated the traumatic experience of the Vietnamese people during war with the Americans with his own life-threatening motorcycle injury in 1972. For example, in relation to Histoire(s), when two interviewers from Positif pressed Godard to justify the “semantic and geographical slide” between “the German occupation of World War II and the American occupation which, according to you, followed it”, he simply replied: “That’s how I see it”.(5)

It is easy, in short, to overestimate Godard’s status as an intellectual. We must not let this misapprehension intimidate us as we travel through the Histoire(s). Yet, by the same token, Godard wants to be taken deadly seriously for the central concept he arrived at in the course of elaborating his Histoire(s) du cinéma.

3. History as Fall

By around the mid ‘80s, Godard had developed his own, striking thesis about the intimate interrelationship of cinema and history; this is the idea or argument that is set out – poetically and cryptically – in the first two episodes of the Histoire(s), constituting its First (and longest) Part.

In a nutshell, cinema begins in all its splendour – in ‘all its stories’ – with a magical, projective, redemptive function: it sees into the future and warns of the storm clouds to come. Cinema is still, in this phase, attached to reality, the “little brother” to what Godard labels History with a capital H in its most classical conception, a ‘sole history’ – a History which, for him as for all of us, is overwhelmingly defined in terms of global trauma (wars, ecological disaster, capitalist exploitation, communist slaughter).

With the advent of World War II – and, more particularly, the Holocaust – Godard’s cinema history assumes its Biblical Fall from grace. With the coming of the concentration camps, cinema loses its link with Time and Reality; it records nothing and senses little, it trafficking only in its own desperate evasions and illusions. After that break, cinema can only be some kind of con game – or else it desperately tries to claw back the prevailing darkness to let in a little light. Histoire(s) is full of imagery of, and references to, darkness and light.

The key moment in Part 1a of Histoire(s) comes when the central idea of cinema’s Fall from grace is sketched – and this dramatic turn in the unfolding structure of the work is announced by the arrival or unveiling of the Holocaust, signaled by (among other things) a clip from Claude Lanzmann’s monumental Shoah (1985).

4. The Essay as Poetic Form

The Histoire(s) is, as I have suggested, an essay – but nothing like the clear, patient, guided tour through film and social history that Martin Scorsese provides in his ‘personal journey’ documentaries on American and Italian cinema (respectively 1995 and 1999). Godard’s essayistic form is like no other, and wholly his own; it proceeds via puns, shocks, associative flashes, rude superimpositions, mysterious transitions, dazzling montages, and oceanic tides of sound and music. Godard likes to break things up and categorise them, but then he loves even more to scramble and make nonsense of his own labels – as with the titles of each episode, which effectively appear within every episode as possible alternative titles. Everything leads to everything else in Histoire(s) du cinéma – not in a tidy, linear way, but in a constant return or spiraling back.

One really needs to feel, as a viewer, the emotional structure of each episode: how it rises and falls, quickens and dies – usually several times over in each episode. Godard often lingers in his enigmatic opening passages – where he provides a kind of open-plan summary of the materials he is about to deal with – and then hurries through in the final, concluding flurry, leaving us breathless, maybe a little confused, and wanting more. It is important to identify the plateaux – the parts where Godard pauses or hesitates, investigating some idea or connection at length – and then the moments that announce a shift or break, some complicating insert from the real world, or film history. Godard is a master card player who always keeps some aces up his sleeve in this way.

The Histoire(s) constitutes a vast, poetic structure. We can work through it, destructure it, not only as a succession of ideas, but as a floating castle of motifs, forever repeated and varied. Let us take, for example, the motif of eyes: the eyes of James Stewart in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) standing in for the gaze of cinema or the camera itself; shock-horror eyes, in a sudden zoom insert, from Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1978); and Godard’s own eyes, emblematically straining to see into the dark, or the future. Or take the motif of falling, linked always to the loss or corruption of innocence: bodies falling, swooning in silent cinema; war planes falling in defeat; and many more.

Godard proceeds, as I have suggested, by free association. It is this mental process that he mimics and recreates in his editing, letting us join in the thrill (and sometimes the enigma) of this kind of perpetual mental leaping and connection-making. Sometimes the connections are crystal clear, and sometimes they are more lateral: in the latter case, the buried link needs to be ferreted out.

Let us take one of the series’ finest passages, early on in the first episode. The first linkage in this section is between the screen adaptation of Faust (1926) by Friedrich Murnau and Vincente Minnelli’s Hollywood musical The Bandwagon (1953). We can play with the emotional and intellectual associations, some of them quite clear, and some of which are deliberately humorous: a man (Mephistopheles) seemingly on fire, then a woman (the divine dancer Cyd Charisse) also on fire. There is the juxtaposition, beautiful to observe, between black-and-white and colour, between Germanic high-art film and American popular culture, between tragic stillness and erotic movement in the gestures. There are two sound overlays throughout this: a Beethoven Quartet, and a spoken passage from Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad (1961), about a woman who ‘never changes’, who is frozen in her glacial beauty.

And we can go deeper, because the Faust story is all about a man selling his soul – and Godard is always bemoaning the selling or prostitution of body and soul in cinema, its freezing into an image in that way. But what is the specific connection between Murnau and Minnelli? Quite simply that, in the Bandwagon (though not in this specific anthology scene that Godard cites of the ‘Girl Hunt Ballet’), the plot involves a pretentious director staging a musical version of Faust: that is the buried link.

Then the sequence moves on to a magnificent rhyme or alternation of two movements, one rightwards and the other leftwards, as if about to meet in the same narrative space, although taken (of course) from two completely different black-and-white films. The first, clearing of the woods for hunting, is from Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939); and the second, with the woman falling, pursued and attacked by a man, is Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Crucified Lovers (1954). Here again, lyricism and eroticism get twisted into menace and violence.

5. One Man’s Story

What we see in Histoire(s) du cinéma are not encyclopedic traces of world cinema history; Godard falls far short of that ideal, because huge portions of cinema history, yesterday and particularly today, are missing. Rather, it is one man’s history, his secret cinema of formative viewing experiences, personal illuminations and epiphanies. That is what he stages for us in Histoire(s).

This is why so many of its filmic references gravitate around the gods and fetishes that he discovered while hanging out and writing for Cahiers du cinéma magazine in the 1950s (discoveries like Bergman, Hitchcock, Renoir, Mizoguchi … ); it is why his own films need to be inserted so prominently into this history; and it is why Henri Langlois is so often evoked as a primal father-figure in this series, that gentleman-founder of the Cinémathèque français who seemed to contain (as Godard said in the mid 1960s) “all the memory of cinema” and who let others see “the revolution that might be effected in the aesthetic of moving pictures by this new vision of its historicity”. (6) It was apparently Langlois himself who first imagined something resembling the Histoire(s) project.

Godard courts grandiloquence (but who better to try it on?) when he proposes himself as this quintessential ‘man of the cinema’, the filmmaker-cinephile whose lifetime spans that of the medium in which he works. This is the very essence of Godardian melancholia, the wellspring of its urgency and pathos: this sense that cinema will die with him. But there is, ultimately, a gesture of humility and self-effacement in all of this on Godard’s part. His cryptic self-portrait is inherently precarious.

For the cinema, as Godard once said, is “transitory, ephemeral”, written on the wind; inscribed only in fleeting traces, some disconnected images and sounds, and sentimentally overloaded, scrambled memories. Cinema is hard evidence, but only fitfully can it serve as a testament; death is too much at work there. It is the form of this remembered, necessarily scrappy, haunted, sad history of the twentieth century that Godard evokes in all the prodigious techniques of his Histoire(s) du cinéma.

Whereas the historian uses intermediaries, the cinephile experiences only symbiosis and immediacy. The former produces knowledge, the latter is seeking a communion.
– Jean-Louis Leutrat (7)


(1) Michel Ciment and Stéphane Goudet, “Entretien: Jean-Luc Godard”, Positif, no. 456 (February 1999), 57 (translation mine).

(2) I am indebted here to Jean-Luc Godard and Youssef Ishagpour, Cinema: The Archaeology of Film and the Memory of a Century (London: Berg, 2005).

(3) Godard quoted in Jean-Louis Leutrat, “Traces that Resemble Us: Godard’s Passion”, Sub-Stance 51, 1986, 38.

(4) Godard in Leutrat, 43.

(5) Ciment and Goudet, 56.

(6) Jean-Luc Godard, “Speech delivered at the Cinémathèque Française on the Occasion of the Louis Lumière Retrospective in January 1966: Thanks to Henri Langlois”, in Godard on Godard, ed. and trans. Tom Milne, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972),  236.

(7) Leutrat, 37.


Ciment, Michel and Stéphane Goudet. “Entretien: Jean-Luc Godard.” Positif 456 (1999).

Godard, Jean-Luc and Youssef Ishagpour. Cinema: The Archaeology of Film and the Memory of a Century. London: Berg, 2005.

Godard, Jean-Luc. “Speech delivered at the Cinémathèque Française on the Occasion of the Louis Lumière Retrospective in January 1966: Thanks to Henri Langlois”. In Godard on Godard, ed and trans. Tom Milne. London: Secker & Warburg, 1972.

Grafe, Frieda. Collected Writings (12 Volumes). Berlin: Verlag Brinkmann & Bose, 2006.

Leutrat, Jean-Louis “Traces that Resemble Us: Godard’s Passion.” Sub-Stance 51 (1986).


About the Author

Adrian Martin

About the Author

Adrian Martin

Adrian Martin is an Australian-born film and arts critic living in Malgrat, Spain. He is the author of nine books since 1994, and thousands of articles and reviews since 1978. His website of writings is http://www.filmcritic.com.au.View all posts by Adrian Martin →